Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Paolina Borghese’s (unairconditioned) feet

Friday, October 20th, 2017

Set in the Mannerist splendour of Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s villa on the Pincian Hill, today the Galleria Borghese is one of Rome’s most beautiful museums. Its owner spared no expense to create a suburban party palace that would set off his superlative collection of paintings, sculpture and antiquities. Frescoed ceilings and walls, inlaid marble floors and every other sumptuous architectural feature you can imagine serve as the backdrop to one of the greatest private collections of art ever amassed.

As the nephew of Camillo Borghese, Pope Paul V, Scipione benefitted handsomely from papal nepotism (not coincidentally, the English term derives from the Italian word for nephew), first garnering the elevation to the cardinalship and then a heap of other titles, benefices and revenues that would make the most exploitative Roman tax farmer blush. Much of those moneys he spent amassing an art collection worthy of the crowned heads of Europe. One of those crowned heads, in fact, the notoriously self-crowned head of Napoleon Bonaparte, bought a large part of it from his wastrel brother-in-law Camillo Borghese in the early 19th century. It would form the nucleus of the Louvre’s collection.

Apollo and Daphne by Bernini.Before it was chipped away by his heirs after his death, the collection included 12, count them, 12 Caravaggios. Today that figure is reduced by half, still an incredible concentration of paintings by the master of dark and light in a single small museum. When Caravaggio’s Youth with a Basket of Fruit, The Young Bacchus Ill and David with the Head of Goliath come to life at night, they get to play Texas Hold ‘Em with the likes of Raphael’s La Fornarina and Woman with Unicorn, Corregio’s Danae, Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love and Boticelli’s Madonna and Child with the Young St. John the Baptist and Angels. If they need to sweeten the pot, they let figures by Rubens, Parmigianino, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Pinturicchio, Andrea del Sarto, Canaletto, and Perugino chip in. If they’re really in the mood to party, Paolina Borghese, sister of Napoleon Bonaparte and wife of Camillo Borghese, rises from the marble couch the sculptor Antonio Canova captured her on and brings the heat. Bernini’s extraordinary, almost unbelievable Apollo and Daphne are too realistically frozen in mythological time to play along.

With so many world class treasures of the arts to enjoy, the Galleria Borghese was an obvious addition to my itinerary, all the more so since it would allow me to post an update to a past story. Remember this story from 2013 about Paolina Borghese’s dainty shoes discovered in the University of Aberdeen museum archives? I was delighted to find that according to my viewcount stats, it has been consistently popular ever since, largely thanks to foot fetish websites. Well, for all you feet fans out there, here’s Canova’s representation of Princess Paolina’s doggies.

I thought I had posted about a distinctly less entertaining story, but I can’t seem to find it in the archives so I guess I never did. The Galleria Borghese needs a new climate control system. I read about this situation a couple of years ago, if I recall correctly, and it was dire then. The ancient air conditioning was so hobbled that it barely produced enough cool air to keep the areas around the units at proper temperature, so they had to leave windows open to let some of the heat out of the hot, humid rooms and institute reservation-only ticketing to control the numbers of people allowed in at any given time. When I read about it back then, they were raising money to replace and update the whole system, but it was an expensive proposition and the Italian government wasn’t exactly rushing to spend that dough.

It still hasn’t been fixed, and y’all, it was bad. I mean really, really bad. I was genuinely horrified to my core by what I saw and experienced. The larger rooms with the more popular works (mainly Renaissance Old Masters) were stultifying, and you could actually see the moisture damage on the surface of oil paintings. One was so bad the paint was cracking in a line down the middle and bubbling up. Only a few of the works even had the protection of a glass panel covering the canvas. Only one of the 20-year-old air conditioners was blowing any air. I put my hand over it and it was lukewarm. It was deeply upsetting, so much so that I almost wished I hadn’t gone because seriously they need to shut the doors to human bodies and the heat, dirt, bacteria and effluvia they inevitably bring into a space and fix this monstrous state of affairs immediately. It is a true state of emergency. I can only hope against hope that my ticket price might help right this terrible wrong.

 

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Finally some updates

Thursday, October 19th, 2017

I’ve had the hardest time getting to things that I’ve written about in the past so I could post first-person updates. (The hours and availability of sites and museum exhibitions in Rome and environs are, let’s just say, fluid.) Finally today is the day.

Let’s start with everyone’s highest priority, the cat sanctuary at the Largo di Torre Argentina. When last we saw our feline overlords and their faithful staff, they were under threat of eviction by the city, which had issues with the shelter having been set up in an excavated space under the street that is part of the ancient remains of a temple complex built at various times between the 4th and the 1st centuries B.C. The city had a solid case because the sanctuary was built without a permit on an ancient archaeological site and was therefore illegal. It also had a crap case because it claimed the sanctuary was a health hazard when in fact it has the most exacting sanitation standards I’ve ever heard of for an animal refuge, and that it compromised the ruins which weren’t in any kind of peril whatsoever from the small and discreet structure tucked away in what would otherwise be an empty overhang.

The potential loss of the invaluable services they provide to the city’s feral and abandoned cat population — hundreds of cats have been adopted, unadoptable ones virtually adopted, and tens of thousands of cats in the colony spayed — was devastating to cat lovers and Rome lovers alike. Petitions and phone calls protesting the proposed eviction ensued, but I hadn’t read any follow-up on the outcome.

I can now confirm that not only is the Torre Argentina Roman Cat Sanctuary alive and kicking, they are now the official tenders of the cats, city approved! Check out this sign:

They weren’t open when we stopped by so I couldn’t get inside the sanctuary itself, or inside the sunken temple site at all, for that matter, but I’ll take another stab at it if at all possible. Meanwhile, I was able to get a couple of paparazzi shots of the stars of the show. They were supremely unimpressed by my attempts to get their attention, and really just by my existence in general.

Just a few blocks away, today I got some shots of the ruins of the Athenaeum of Hadrian discovered in Piazza Venezia during construction of Metro Line C in 2009. It’s not like I hadn’t already walked by it about a dozen times already. I just failed to recognize what I was seeing until I drove by it on a bus last night, weirdly enough. When the excavation ended in 2012, the plan was to build the subway stop somewhere nearby in a sewer line and keep the ruins visible to the public. There is no stop yet, but the ruins are visible to the public. Well, sort of. You have to look through a couple of fences. I still managed to sneak the camera in between the links and get a decent pic or two.

Speaking of sneaking the camera in for a decent pic, I went to Piazzale Augusto Imperatore yesterday to check out the restoration work on Augustus’ long-neglected mausoleum, and even covered in scaffolding and construction mess, it still looks hella better than it did in the 80s when it was basically a weed-choked mound with some bricks around the edges/shooting gallery.

It is closed to the public for the duration of the restoration project, all the work done behind a tall barrier, but I got lucky when one of the people working on the site was having a conversation with someone else working on the site and left the gate open for a moment. I rushed in, got a quick shot and hauled ass just before he slammed the gate shut on me. He was even more annoyed by my antics than the cats at Largo Argentina.

I shall close with my favorite update of them all, an entirely fortuitous encounter that went down today at the Capitoline Museums (which have been exceptionally renovated, by the by, but more on that later). There’s a tiny little three-room temporary exhibition going on there right now on reclaimed treasures. The first room has looted artifacts that were recovered by the Carabinieri Art Squad, and guess what was there? The Etruscan black-figure kalpis by the Micali Painter that was pried out of the clutches of the very, very unwilling Toledo Museum of Art in 2012, years after the unique piece was conclusively proven in court to have been stolen.

I didn’t know about the exhibition and I didn’t know the vase, which depicts pirates being turned into dolphins by Dionysus as punishment for their attempted kidnap of the god, would be at the Capitoline. I loved writing that article exposing the whole sordid backstory, I love the kalpis and I loved getting to see it in person, especially since the only pics I could find of it were scans from printed material where you can see the grain of the paper. I had to take it from the side to minimize the horror of flash glare, and yes, I did get yelled at by the guard for taking a prohibited indoor picture. I REGRET NOTHING.

 

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Another hidden gem: Domitian’s Stadium under Piazza Navona

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

You may or may not have learned that the Roman Baroque masterpiece now known as Piazza Navona started out as a stadium built by the Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.) in 86 A.D. to celebrate the Certamen Capitolino Iovi, a musical, theatrical and athletic performance dedicated to Jupiter. He modeled the new stadium and the accompanying odeon on the Greek model, but Domitian didn’t simply use the terrain of a natural hill to build the multi-tiered stands into the way the Greeks did with their stadia. He had the financial means, the labour and the technology to create everything from scratch, and boy did he. The site he selected was on the Campus Martius, a level field outside the ancient Servian Wall that had served for centuries as a military training ground when Roman law prohibited the presence of troops inside the official boundary of the city.

Measuring about 275 meters long and 106 meters wide (902 x 348 feet), the stadium had one curved end and one flat end with two long parallel sides. The entrances were in the middle of the curved end (the hemicycle) and the long sides and, like all Roman stadia, had meticulously arranged numbered archways and staircases for optimal traffic flow and access to the bleachers. Archaeologists estimate that it could seat around 30,000 people.

It was used temporarily to host gladiatorial games after a fire disabled the Colosseum in 217 A.D., and some years later it was restored by the Emperor Alexander Severus. We know it was still in use in the 4th century because the historian Amianus Marcellinus mentions it. Shortly thereafter it was abandoned and suffered the same fate as the Circus Maximus, Colosseum and other monumental feats of Roman architecture: it was used as a quarry to supply travertine and brick for new construction. As its building materials were stripped away, its entrances and arches were used as shops and stables.

Within three centuries of Marcellinus’ writing, Romans had already forgotten the very name of the stadium, calling it the Circus Flamineus, then the Circus Alexandri, then the Campus Agonis which was corrupted into Navoni and ultimately Navona, which happens to mean big ship. The coincidence of this linguistic evolution led to the birth of the urban legend that the Piazza Navona was named after the naumachia, sea battles staged in an artificial lake inside the Circus. This never happened. It wasn’t that kind of arena.

Once the Piazza Navona was built, following precisely the shape of its ancient progenitor (which had been extensively built upon by that point), THEN it was flooded. Roman nobles got a big kick out of racing their carriages, some built in the shape of fantastical sea monsters but still pulled by regular terrestrial horses, poor things, through the flooded piazza every year.

With all the despoliation of Domitian’s original structure, including the regular bouts of construction on top of and in the middle of whatever was left, it’s remarkable that any of it was left to rediscover in 1936 when Mussolini’s project to demolish, rebuild and modernize the area’s streets and houses ran into the remains of the cavea, including a large travertine-clad entrance arch from the hemicycle end. A few bits and pieces were known to have survived in the basements of some of the houses along the piazza and under the Church of St. Agnes, but the discoveries from the 30s were more extensive and complete.

Still, nobody gave much of a damn about them. When I was a kid growing up in Rome in the 80s, you could see exactly one part of Domitian’s Stadium from the street, the big entrance arch, and because ground level was so much higher than it had been in imperial times, you really had to look for it at ankle height. That finally changed in 2014 when a new archaeological area opened underneath the Piazza. It is a small, eminently manageable, phenomenally well-lit museum featuring large chunks of Domitian’s Stadium and a handful of statue fragments, inscriptions and building materials discovered during the dig. I didn’t even know it was there until I happened to walk by the sign and followed it like the yellow brick history nerd road it is, and I read about this kind of thing every day. It’s crazy that it’s so little known. It is the only surviving example of a masonry-built stadium outside of the Greek world. People should be freaking out about it.

I mean, the rest rooms alone are worth the price of admission:

 

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Palazzo Venezia: a hidden gem in plain sight

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

The only reason I even darkened the doorway of the 15th century Palazzo Venezia, most recognizable today from old newsreel footage of Benito Mussolini addressing the multitudes in the Piazza Venezia from the balcony, was to see if the Duce’s last secret bunker, rediscovered in 2011 after decades hidden under the floor of a junk room, was open to visitors. It was not. I turned to leave. Then I happened to glance upward and this is what I saw:

Vaulted ceiling in the entrance hall of the Palazzo Venezia.

I left anyway because I had other things planned yesterday, but returned today, uncontrollably attracted by the promise of fine architectural and decorative features serving as the backdrop for what the website assured me was an exceptional collection of Renaissance bronze statuary, terracotta sculptures, silver decorative arts, panel paintings, carved wood pieces, majolica, Japanese and Chinese porcelains, Islamic art and woven textiles.

My reaction as I walked through the first few spaces, which are largely empty, was that the story of this museum is in the floors and ceilings. Check out the herringbone brick floor and the wood ceiling with frescoes at the top of the wall in the Loggia of the Blessings, so named because the original relatively modest structure was greatly expanded by order of Cardinal Pietro Barbo, the future Pope Paul II, who was born in Venice and wanted a dwelling worthy of his sumptuous tastes. It became a papal palace in 1469, five years after the election of Paul II to the Throne of Peter. He stood on the balcony of this loggia to deliver his weekly blessing to the faithful.


Here are some sweet floor tiles and a wood panel featuring Paul II’s symbols from rooms just off the loggia:

And then there’s the Hall of Hercules, named after the fresco series depicting his labours that line the top of the walls. My terrible pictures do it no justice whatsoever.

The glories of the Renaissance palazzo itself came to an apex in the Hall of the Globe (Sala del Mappamondo), which Mussolini picked as his headquarters as anybody would have in his place. Its stupendous decorative appeal was only enhanced in my nerdly eyes by the presence of active restorers working on one of the frescoes. Sure, there was a wall up blocking some of the view and the middle of the room was entirely cordoned off so the pictures I took are even more terrible than usual, but public restoration projects always fill my heart with joy, minor inconveniences be damned.

Up until this point the collection, a combination of Paul II’s legendary acquisitiveness and later purchases added after the palazzo became a national museum in the 1920s, was sparsely but handsomely represented. I soon realized this was a deliberate choice made to ensure the focus of the visitors would be on the beauty of the historic building itself instead of on the stuff it could be stuffed with, because y’all, they have some STUFF in the Palazzo Venezia. Here is but a tiny sampling of what it has to offer:



Then there’s the loggia with a lapidarium (a collection of engraved stonework, reliefs, tombstones, etc. from antiquity through the Renaissance) that looks down on a magical courtyard.

I didn’t even get to the temporary exhibition of Japanese art in the basement due to a prior commitment cutting my visit short. I could easily have stayed another hour and barely have scratched the surface. This museum is smack in the middle of one of the busiest tourist routes in the world. You are crushed by massive tour groups as you walk around the piazza to the Capitoline, the Roman fora, Colosseum and Palatine, and yet, there in the Palazzo Venezia, nary a soul so much as brushed up against me in the cool elegance of these magnificent rooms and loggias. Put it on the list, y’all. Put it on the list.

 

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Update 2: National Portrait Gallery bought Adams portrait

Thursday, October 12th, 2017

The best-case scenario for history and museum nerds has come to pass! The buyer of the 1843 daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams sold at auction last week for $360,500 is the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery.

John Quincy Adams silhouette by by Henry Williams, 1809. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian InstitutionThis could not be a more perfect fit. Collecting images of US presidents has been a key part of the NPG’s mission since the museum opened in 1968. Today it houses the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House, from formal oil paintings by portrait masters like Gilbert Stuart and John Trumbull to bronze sculptures of political cartoons, plaster casts of presidential body parts, medals, prints, silhouettes and of course, photographs. The Smithsonian already has two other daguerreotypes of John Quincy Adams in its collections, one in the NPG taken a few months after the Haas portrait in August of 1843, the second in the National Museum of American History taken in 1846.

The Haas daguerreotype one will take pride of place because it is older than the others in the collection and indeed the earliest known surviving photographic portrait of an American president.

“John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, was the last President to have a direct tie back to the Founding generation, and the fact that he sat in front of a camera to have his portrait taken, is sort of remarkable,” said Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery. “It confirms that in many ways America was born modern; embracing not only new government ideals but also the latest technologies that helped its leaders to become accessible to the public. To have acquired this unique piece of American history on the eve of our 50th anniversary has particular resonance because one of our goals is to remind people that the individual actions of our leaders and how we record their legacies impact the future.” […]

Adding to the significance of bringing this historic portrait to the museum is the crucial role Adams played in establishing the Smithsonian Institution. For over a decade, Adams tirelessly advocated for the implementation of James Smithson’s bequest to establish an institution dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge. With this acquisition, the Portrait Gallery brings this singular treasure to its permanent collection and enriches the way the museum portrays Adams’ remarkable story as President, statesman and champion for the Smithsonian.

The newly acquired portrait of John Quincy Adams will go on public display next year in the National Portrait Gallery’s revamped America’s Presidents exhibition.

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Jeremy Bentham’s head goes back on display

Sunday, October 8th, 2017

Philosopher Jeremy Bentham, father of utilitarianism, relentless advocate for social and political reforms from public education to animal rights to the rehabilitation of prisoners to women’s suffrage, wanted his body to be of use to humanity after he had finished with it. In keeping with what would become the key principle of his philosophical viewpoint, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong,” he decided that his dead body should be employed for the public good 63 years before he vacated it.

It was 1769 and Bentham, then just 21 years old, included a codicil in his will that his body be left to his friend and kinsman physician George Fordyce for dissection and preservation. He explained his reasoning in that document:

“This my will and special request I make, not out of affectation of singularity, but to the intent and with the desire that mankind may reap some small benefit in and by my decease, having hitherto had small opportunities to contribute thereto while living.”

The public dissection aspect was a challenge to the widely-held revulsion at the idea of cutting up a human body even though the surgical profession was then growing by leaps and bounds from it barber-chair origins and the proliferating medical schools were desperate for anatomical specimens. Bentham’s position was typically utilitarian: why, he reasoned, should corpses not be converted from potential sources of anti-social evils (the spread of disease, overcrowded burial grounds, the financial strain of funeral and interral driving the poor into debt, prison, penury) into sources of great benefit to society? And what greater utility could a dead person provide than to give anatomists the opportunity to learn and teach life-saving skills? Instead of being a societal pathogen, the cadaver would be an instrument of healing, a role only it could play.

But there was another instruction Bentham had for his body after death. He wanted his head to be preserved by such means as to ensure that his looks remained fundamentally unchanged, and joined to his skeletal remains in a tableau he called an Auto-Icon. He would become his own statue, he noted with delight, so there would be no need for marble effigies and solemn funerary monuments.

Two months before his death he reaffirmed this long-held position attaching a memorandum to his latest will that left his body, the duty of public dissection and creation of the auto-icon to his good friend and disciple in utilitarianism Thomas Southwood Smith.

I direct that as soon as it appears to any one that my life is at an end my executor or any other person by whom on the opening of this paper the contents thereof shall have been observed shall send an express with information of my decease to Doctor Southwood Smith requesting him to repair to the place where my body is lying and after ascertaining by appropriate experiment that no life remains it is my request that he will take my body under his charge and take the requisite and appropriate measures for the disposal and preservation of the several parts of my bodily frame in the manner expressed in the paper annexed to this my will and at the top of which I have written ‘Auto-Icon.’

The skeleton he will cause to be put together in such manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a Chair usually occupied by me when living in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought in the course of the time employed in writing I direct that the body thus prepared shall be transferred to my executor He will cause the skeleton to be clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me. The Body so clothed together with the chair and the staff in my later years borne by me he will take charge of And for containing the whole apparatus he will cause to be prepared an appropriate box or case and will cause to be engraved in conspicuous characters on a plate to be affixed thereon and also on the labels on the glass cases in which the preparations of the soft parts of my body shall be contained as for example as in the manner used in the case of wine decanters my name at length with the letters ob. followed by the day of my decease.

Three days after Bentham’s death on June 6th, 1832, Dr. Smith followed his mentor’s instructions to the letter. Scholars, doctors, men of letters and other luminaries were invited to the dissection held at the Webb Street School of Anatomy and Medicine. Again as instructed by Bentham, Smith delivered a lecture “on the Usefulness of Knowledge of this kind to the Community” over the dead body before proceeding with the dissection.

Once the anatomical demonstration was over, he went ahead with the auto-icon preparations. He made a skeleton of the bones of Bentham’s body. The philosopher’s head was preserved by putting it over sulphuric acid in a sealed cabinet. An air pump circulated the fumes, drawing out the fluids and drying the head completely, just as Bentham had discussed in his Auto-Icon memo. What Bentham hadn’t planned for was that his head came out looking like the Cryptkeeper’s long-lost twin. A little color adjustment was not going to be able to fix that.

Smith saw that putting so ghastly and unrecognizable a head on top of the stuffed and dressed skeleton would not be in keeping with Bentham’s intent, so he commissioned a wax model of Jeremy’s head from Jacques Talrich, a French artist who created a realistic impression using an 1828 bust, a portrait painted from life by Henry Pickersgill and Southwood Smith’s own memorial ring, one of 24 Bentham had made before his death bearing his profile and a few strands of hair that he willed to his closest friends. Some of Bentham’s hair from his Cryptkeeper head was embedded in the avuncular and warm Ben Franklin-esque wax head.

Continuing to pay scrupulous attention to Betham’s instructions, Smith created the auto-icon. The skeleton was stuffed and dressed, topped with the realistic wax head and put in Jeremy Bentham’s preferred chair. In one hand he held his favorite walking stick, Dapple. The whole set piece when then placed in a mahogany and glass display case. Southwood Smith kept the whole shebang in his New Broad Street home until he moved to a smaller place in 1850 and had no room in which to keep his friend’s mounted remains. He arranged to donate it to the University College London (UCL) which holds Jeremy Bentham as a spiritual founding father because so many of the co-founders were his followers.

Now the UCL had this remarkable effigy and relic of its philosophical role model and had no idea what to do with it. Putting him on open display seemed … awkward. Locking it up … rude? So they stuck the auto-icon in a back room and took people to see him by enquiry only. Dr. Smith wrote to a friend that “the authorities seem to be afraid or ashamed to own their possession.”

Smith was right. Bentham’s auto-icon was all but forgotten until it was rediscovered in the university’s anatomical museum in 1898 by Professor George Thane and curator T. W. P. Lawrence. They described their examination in this freaking amazing report. Seriously one of the greatest all-time reports. (I realize now I totally should have saved this story for Halloween.)

January 3, 1898
We opened the case containing the figure of Jeremy Bentham, and took out the latter. It was rather dusty, but not very much so. The clothes were much moth eaten, especially the undervest, and if taken off it would probably have been impossible to get the last on again. We undid the clothes, and found that they were stuffed with hay and tow, around the skeleton, which had been macerated and skilfully articulated. Both hands are present inside the gloves -the feet were not examined.

In place of the head is a wax bust, which is supported on an iron spike. The head was found, wrapped in cloth saturated with some bituminous or tarry substance (a sort of tarpaulin) and then in paper, making a parcel, in the cavity of the trunk-skeleton, being fastened by strong wire running from the ribs to the vertebral column. On unpacking this the head itself was found to be mummified, dried, and prepared, by clearing any suboccipital soft parts, so that it looks not unlike a New Zealand head. In the sockets are glass eyes. The atlas, which had been macerated, is fastened in its natural place below the occipital bone. At the top of the head is a small hole in the skull, where the tip of the spike had doubtless come through, and round the hole is an impression formed by a circular washer and nut which had fitted the screw on the end of the spike, and by which the head was formerly fixed on the trunk.

The face is clean shaved-hair scanty, grey and long.
(Signed) T. W. P. LAWRENCE and G. D. T.

Yes, Southwood Smith stashed Jeremy Bentham’s mummified head inside his skeleton’s chest cavity. Is that not the greatest real-life Washington Irving story you’ve ever heard? So practical too! I’m sure Bentham would have been delighted to have his rib cage serve as a handy storage compartment for his head.

Anyway, the auto-icon stayed in the anatomy museum for the next few decades before passing into the possession of the UCL library in 1926. The mummified head became part of the display. It was placed on a platter between the auto-icon’s feet, oddly enough. It would be another 13 years before Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon finally got a thorough restoration, and by then it was 1939 and London was getting to be a very dangerous place. He was moved to two different locations for his safety after the war broke out, only returning to UCL after it was over.

The head was removed from its peculiar position on the floor of the cabinet between the effigy’s feet before World War II, nobody is sure exactly when. It was placed in a display case of its own on top of the auto-icon cabinet, only returning to its former surroundings for the length of a photo session in 1948. It hasn’t been publicly displayed since then and only recently has it begun to receive the punctilious conservation attention it needs. So delicate that ambient movement alone can cause hairs to fall out, Jeremy Bentham’s head is now kept locked in a safe under strict security protocols in environmentally-controlled conditions at the university’s Institute of Archaeology. Only rarely are select researchers allowed access.

For a few months this fall and winter, however, he’s back and has such wonders to show you.

What does it mean to be human? Curating Heads at UCL, which is a pretty great name for an exhibition (although I think it would have been punchier using just the two words: Curating Heads), runs at UCL’s Octagon Gallery from October 2nd, 2017, through February 28th, 2018. Bentham’s remarkable auto-icon is a lens through which visitors can see the changing attitudes towards the display of human remains, the complexity of the issues, the cultural biases and taboos which delimit what human remains are displayed and why. There are events and lectures connected to the exhibition, including one on a favorite topic of mine, extracting and sequencing ancient DNA and what we can learn from it.

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Yeovil Hoard on display at Museum of Somerset

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

A hoard of 3,339 Roman coins unearthed in March of 2013 has gone on display at the Museum of Somerset in Taunton, just a hop, skip and a jump from where they were found in Yeovil.

The hoard was discovered neither by archaeologists nor by metal detector enthusiasts. This one was found by bulldozer driver Mark Copsey who was moving masses of earth during installation of a fake turf hockey pitch at the Yeovil Recreational Centre. We have his exceptionally keen eye to thank that the hoard wasn’t scattered to the four corners of the earth and the vessel destroyed. After he leveled the old hockey field, he looked back upon his works, ye mighty, and saw a green stain on the newly exposed surface of the soil. Upon further investigation, he saw coins and the remains of the pot (the top of it had been sheered off by the bulldozer). He contacted South West Heritage Trust who sent experts to explore the find site. The coins he had already picked up and put in a sealed bag were sent along to the British Museum for examination. The in situ coins and greyware vessel fragments were raised en bloc and excavated in controlled conditions in the BM lab.

Conservators found that all of the coins date to the 2nd-3rd centuries A.D., most to the 3rd. The most recent coins in the hoard date to around 270 A.D., which is probably around the time they were buried, a period of turmoil in Britain when usurpers created a splinter “Gallic Empire” and ruled as rivals to the official Roman emperor. The overwhelming majority of the coins, 3335, to be precise, are base silver coins. Out of that number, only 165 are silver denarii. The rest are less valuable radiates which became the most circulated denomination in the 3rd century. The remaining four of the 3,339 coins are large brass sestertii. In the 3rd century, four sestertii were worth a single silver denarius.

Coin stack with textile fragments still attached by corrosion. Photo courtesy the Somerset County Council.At least some of them had been stacked in little piles and wrapped with textiles before being buried in the pot. In one of those great archaeological flukes that descend upon us all too rarely, the corrosion from the metal created a sort of caked-on crust that ensured the survival of fragments of organic textiles even though the ground wasn’t waterlogged or a peat bog or extremely dry or extremely cold.

The hoard contains a large array of different coins struck under different emperors (40 emperors and empresses, to be precise) some of them of significant historical note. There’s a series of coins struck in 248 A.D. during the reign of Emperor Philip I which commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of the city of Rome. Their reverse sides depict exotic animals — hippos, elephants, lions — thousands of whom were slaughtered in the games celebrating the millennium birthday.

Two months after its discovery, the Yeovil Hoard was declared Treasure and valued by the Treasure Valuation Committee at £53,500 ($71,000). The usual practice is for a local museum to be offered the treasure contingent on their paying the assessed value as a reward to the finder and landowner. At first it looked like they might be in for a bumpy ride. One of Mark Copsey’s co-workers claimed it was a “group find” and that they all should get a cut, but the coroner’s inquest determined there was no basis for the claim. Copsey was declared the finder free and clear.

The Museum of Somerset declared its desire to acquire the hoard in no uncertain terms and launched a fundraiser. The South Somerset District Council, owners of the hockey pitch and rec center where the hoard was discovered, were very much in support of the goal of keeping the hoard close to where it was found. They decided to waive their rights to half the reward, leaving the museum with £26,750 to raise. They got donations from individuals, the Friends of the Museum of Somerset and grants from several art/cultural patrimony funds. It took more than a year, but the fee was raised in full and now the Yeovil Hoard will be exhibited in a local museum, albeit one that was recently renovated for millions of pounds and is now a state-of-the-art facility.

Coin of Philip I, lion reverse. Photo courtesy the Somerset County Council.Somerset has been on a long roll hoard-wise. The spectacular Frome Hoard, 52,503 Roman coins buried in a single pot, was found less than 30 miles northeast of Yeovil and is now on display at the Museum of Somerset, as is the Shapwick Hoard, discovered in 1998 and still the largest group of silver denarii found in Britain. The museum is also the permanent home of the Priddy Hoard, gold jewelry buried 1300-1100 BC. during the Bronze Age, and from the same date range, a twisted gold torc that is widely acknowledged as the finest piece of gold work ever discovered in Somerset.

Stephen Minnitt, head of museums at South West Heritage Trust, said: “Somerset has gained a reputation for the exceptional number of Roman coin hoards discovered in the county – these include the well-known Shapwick and Frome hoards.

“We are delighted that, thanks to the support of our funders and the district council, we have also been able to secure the Yeovil Hoard for the county.”

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After many arduous labors, Hercules back in Turkey

Sunday, September 24th, 2017

A Roman-era marble sarcophagus decorated with a bas relief of the Twelve Labors of Hercules on its sides has returned to Turkey after a long sojourn in the at haven of looted antiquities smuggling that is the Geneva Free Port. The saga begins on December 3rd, 2010, when the 2nd century A.D. sarcophagus was discovered in one of the Free Port warehouses by customs officials during an inventory check. Measuring 7.7 x 3.7 feet and weighing three tons, the sarcophagus is actually on the smaller side for its type, but it’s still hard to miss as a suspect antiquity, even hidden under piles of blankets and boxes.

This type of sarcophagus was a popular consumer good, produced on a large scale in workshops in Dokimenion (modern-day Iscehisar, western Turkey) from locally quarried marble in the second half of the second century. They weren’t all cookie-cutter pieces, however. Some are distinctly better than others, commissioned by people who could afford the highest reliefs, the most prized marble and the greatest sculptors. This sarcophagus is the best of all the surviving examples, with top-notch carving depth and anatomical detail. A very wealthy person must have commissioned it.

After years of being used as a pivot for the illicit trade in antiquities thanks to its no questions asked approached and tax-free Geneva warehouse complex, Switzerland was now taking a different approach. In 2003, it finally ratified the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. In 2005 it passed a law requiring that all objects of cultural patrimony had to have verified ownership records. In 2009, a new law forced international traders in cultural goods to file complete and accurate inventories. This law had teeth too, with funding for a customs notification system and thorough inspection of the goods stashed in Free Port warehouses.

So when the sarcophagus’ so-called owner, Phoenix Ancient Art, an antiquities dealership co-owned by brothers Ali and Hicham Aboutaam who have been involved in many, many highly questionable transactions of looted artifacts, was unable to provide proper documentation in compliance with Switzerland’s more stringent regulation, the object was sequestered. Ali protested vociferously. He insisted it had belonged, like all of his loot, to his father who had bought it legally in the 1990s. He fought all attempts at restitution, and the case dragged through the courts for six years.

A joint investigation by Swiss and Turkish authorities found that the sarcophagus had likely been looted from the ancient site of Perge in Antalya during an illegal excavation in the 1970s. This was confirmed by soil and marble analyses. How it wound its way from Turkey to Switzerland remains unclear and the Aboutaam’s father Sleiman died in 1998 so he can’t answer any questions. He also can’t be prosecuted. On September 21st, 2015, a Swiss prosecutor issued an order that the sarcophagus be restituted to Turkey. The Aboutaam’s appealed twice before withdrawing the last appeal in March 2016. That left the restitution order as the final legal say in the matter, and all that was left was for the slow grind of the legal grist mill to finish its work before the piece was returned. Culture and Tourism Ministry officials in Geneva received the sarcophagus on September 13th. It was in Turkey on September 14th.

After almost seven years of legal wrangling, detective work and waiting, the Hercules sarcophagus was welcomed to its new home, the Antalya Museum, on Sunday in an unveiling ceremony presided over by Culture and Tourism Minister Numan Kurtulmuş. It is now on display next to the Weary Herakles, a Roman copy in marble of a 4th century B.C. original bronze by the Greek sculptor Lysippos of Sikyon, which was also looted from Perge and whose torso was pried out of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts after a lengthy battle so it could be reunited with the legs already on display the museum.

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Golden altar of Sahl Church removed for study

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

Sahl Church in the Northwest Jutland village of Sahl near Struer is a fine example of Romanesque architecture. Built around 1150 out of granite ashlars, it has several notable features: a rune stone built into the chapel’s west wall, 16th century frescos, a burgundy silk velvet chasuble embroidered with silver thread made from the wedding dress of Queen Anna Sophia that is still used today on special occasions. Its most spectacular feature is the Golden Altar, a gilded copper altarpiece made by a Danish master artisan from Ribe in around 1200. Embedded with crystals around the borders, the reliefs on the altarpiece panels depict figures and scenes from the Bible, particularly the childhood and suffering of Jesus, and Christian symbolism.

Popular devotional objects in the Middle Ages, only seven golden altars remain today in Denmark and only two of them in their original locations. (The rest are kept at the National Museum.) The bursts of iconoclastic zeal and the preference for plain church decor of the Reformation took a heavy toll on these objects. Many of them were destroyed and the ones that remain are not in the best of the condition. The altarpiece of Sahl Church is by far the best preserved of the seven, largely intact with no major missing parts. Most of the crystals were lost by the 1930s, but they were restored by National Museum experts in 1935.

In 1850, Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae, an archaeologist who was Denmark’s Inspector for the Conservation of Antiquarian Monument, surveyed the church as part of an inspection tour of the area. He warned in a letter that Sahl’s vicar was “adamant that the strange old altarpiece was to be removed” and when he wasn’t able to get rid of the priceless medieval gold and crystal altarpiece, he hired a local artist to paint over the wings. They weren’t original to the piece, thankfully, and they’re gone now but it lends some insight into why there are so few of these inestimable treasures left. Changes in fashion and taste can wreak havoc on historic artifacts, even ones whose value in sheer materials is blatantly obvious. This same vicar, by the way, also had the church’s medieval wooden coffer axed to pieces FOR FIREWOOD. Yet another page in the endless People Are Terrible ledger.

The altar has not been absolutely dated. What we know of their ages has been deduced from analysis of the design style and craftsmanship. When it was last restored more than 80 years ago, it was only spruced up. A new study of the Sahl Golden Altar by conservators at the National Museum of Denmark will give experts the opportunity to use modern methods of analysis to test the wood itself. Dendrochronology, if successful, can provide very precise dates. It will also be X-rayed and the gilding analyzed. They hope the study will reveal more information about the altar’s construction and materials.

While the altar is at the museum, visitors to Sahl Church will see a large-scale photograph of it draped over its usual location.

Within the last few years, the National Museum has conducted further studies on several of the golden altars. The results from this will be gathered in a publication about the unique cultural heritage of golden altars from the Middle Ages, which exists in Denmark.

It is the Carlsberg Foundation, which has granted the money for analyzes of the alhl from Sahl, and the experts hope that the results will be available at the end of the year.

In addition to a new study of the altar, the church itself will also be thoroughly reviewed. This appears in a publication published in the beginning of 2018, where the churches in Estvad, Rønbjerg and Vinderup will also be described.

The publication of the four Western Jutland churches is published as a volume in the National Museum’s great work of Danish Churches, which aims to publish descriptions of all the churches of the country. The project started in 1933, and today about two thirds of the Danish churches are described.

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Indian manuscript with zero symbol far older than realized

Monday, September 18th, 2017

Researchers have discovered that an ancient Indian manuscript is far older than previously realized and therefore contains the earliest known example of the symbol for zero as it is used today. The Bakhshali manuscript, written on 70 delicate leaves of birch bark, was discovered buried in a field near Peshawar in 1881. Indologist AFR Hoernle bought it from the farmer who found it and in 1902 gifted it to the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford where it is kept in the rare books collection.

Replete with Sanskrit numerals, including many instances of the small dot that is the ancestor of our zero, the manuscript is believed to have been written by Silk Road merchants practicing math rather than being a philosophical or scholarly work. Its age has long been subject to debate among scholars and the best guesses, based on factors like writing style and the mathematical concepts it convers, put it between the 8th and 12th century.

University researchers hoped radiocarbon testing would provide an absolute date and answer some of these long-standing questions. They were astounded when several of the pages turned out to date between 200 and 400 A.D. Before now, the zero dot on the wall of the Ganesh temple at the 9th century Gwalior Fort in Madhya Pradesh, India, was believed to be the oldest visual representation of the ancestor of the modern zero numeral. Researchers expected the Bakshali manuscript to date to around the same time as the depiction in the temple.

The zero symbol that we use today evolved from a dot that was used in ancient India and can be seen throughout the Bakhshali manuscript. The dot was originally used as a ‘placeholder’, meaning it was used to indicate orders of magnitude in a number system – for example, denoting 10s, 100s and 1000s.

In this close-up image of folio 16v, you can see the use of a dot as a placeholder in the bottom line. This dot evolved into the use of zero as a number in its own right. Photo courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.While the use of zero as a placeholder was seen in several different ancient cultures, such as among the ancient Mayans and Babylonians, the symbol in the Bakhshali manuscript is particularly significant for two reasons. Firstly, it is this dot that evolved to have a hollow centre and became the symbol that we use as zero today. Secondly, it was only in India that this zero developed into a number in its own right, hence creating the concept and the number zero that we understand today – this happened in 628 AD, just a few centuries after the Bakhshali manuscript was produced, when the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta wrote a text called Brahmasphutasiddhanta, which is the first document to discuss zero as a number.

The reason for the confusion about its date is that the birch pages date to three different periods, hence the range of styles and arithmetic.

Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, said:

‘Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and is a key building block of the digital world. But the creation of zero as a number in its own right, which evolved from the placeholder dot symbol found in the Bakhshali manuscript, was one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics.

‘We now know that it was as early as the 3rd century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so fundamental to the modern world. The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries.’

The Bodleian will loan one folio from the Bakhshali manuscript to the Science Museum in London for its upcoming Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation exhibition. This is the first time any part of the manuscript has been loaned to another institution and a unique opportunity to see a seminal piece of mathematical history alongside other important of India’s contributions to the history of math, science and technology. It runs from October 4th, 2017, through March 31st, 2018.

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